Dir; Charlie Kaufman. Starring; Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette. Color. R. 134 min.
“Humans are the only animal that can see death, so we invented hope.”
Writer/Director Charlie Kaufman is known for making some of the strangest films possible. From “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” to “Being John Malkovich”, the guy comes up with the craziest ways to tell stories that, when you step back, are almost always a hopeful look at human beings (“Anomalisa” is his one too pretentious for me picture). Netflix picked up Kaufman’s latest “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”. While not his best, “Ending Things” is a return to form for the auteur.
As with all of his work, “Ending Things” is not for everyone. The story is both linear as well as non-linear in telling how many different ways life and love can go. It is a movie meant to be interpreted by yourself. Plenty of critics have tried to explain what happens. Not the point. I am simply going to say what I took from the experience. Please make up your mind.
The film opens with a monologue by our star who is unnamed (Jessie Buckley). A montage of a home filled with patterns on the walls, furniture, and exterior decorations is shown over the monologue. We then meet the ‘Young Woman’ who is getting ready to meet her new boyfriend Jake’s (Jesse Plemons) parents for the first time. Her inner consciousness tells the audience, in a nutshell, that she is predicting that she is going to leave Jake after the dinner because the relationship is going nowhere. The drive to the parents house in the snow is quite awkward, highlighted by the ‘Young Woman’ reciting a poem that is so grim the works of Leo Tolstoy in comparison feels like a family comedy. This trip is also juxtaposed with an old janitor at a high school that looks very similar to Jake. We’ll get back to that.
Once they arrive to what is a sheep farm the mom (Toni Colette) is waving from the upstairs window very awkward-like. Before going in, Jake insists on showing her around the farm, complete with frozen dead animals and a pig pit filled with animals that were killed by maggots. Real typical farm stuff. After the tour the young couple head inside for dinner. Jake’s father (David Thewils) has a strange tick and mom is constantly happy in the unsettling sense. Jake’s previous nervousness in the car ride becomes more understandable, and he is increasingly upset by his parents behavior, even bursting out towards the end of the meal which somehow instantly appeared out of nowhere once the parents came down stairs.
This is where things take a real twist. While looking at family pictures on the walls, the ‘Young Woman’ sees a picture of a little girl that is her. From here you can make your own conclusions, but here is my take. SOMEWHAT SPOILERS AHEAD:
The idea that time moves through us instead of us through it is the central theme here. The poem the ‘Young Woman’ recited is somehow in a book of poems found in Jake’s old room. A trip to an ice cream shop with two hotties and one awkward nerdy chick shows the choices we make. The parents, with the mom going through dementia, go through several stages of age, both forwards and backwards, all in one evening. Then you have the Janitor. During the earlier road trip scene Jake mentioned his favorite musical was “Oklahoma”. While mopping the floors, the janitor sees students rehearsing for a new showing of the play at the school Jake grew up at.
Here is my take. Could be wrong, but I don’t think anyone, including Kaufman himself, could explain exactly what’s going on. That’s the whole point. For me, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is about how decisions we make and relationships we enter into can have multiple outcomes. Why is there a picture of the ‘Young Woman’ in the house and why does she feel a connection to it? Were the parents actually in their dementia remembering a strange version of how they first met? Perhaps that never happened and the lonely janitor is Jake after he saved his love in the past while she was being raped when they were in high school. All of these questions are hard to answer, but I believe it is clear that this is a movie about how or why our lives ended up the way they did.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is not perfect. The opening and ending car rides in the snow between the two leads is absolute pretentious bullshit and way too long. I’m sure there’s some hidden meaning rich art critics would scratch their goatees at whilst explaining with a martini in their hands. It’s not, it’s crap. However, the bulk of the movie is absolute genius in dissecting dynamics in family and love over a simple evening dinner. Also, the ending 15 or so minutes is totally heartbreaking in the best way. Seeing what could have been or did actually happen is tear-jerking stuff. It’s not flawless, but “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is an incredibly positive look at being alive. A theme Charlie Kaufman always infuses in his films. He just does it in a strange way that many seem to find hard to take in.